China’s Cultural Revolution—the murderous political and social upheaval initiated by Mao in 1966 and concluded by his death ten years later—is sometimes described as the most perplexing historical event of the twentieth century. The world outside China is still, forty years later, only beginning to understand it. The problem is not a lack of available evidence, but the absence of a single narrative frame—a problem that goes all the way back to Mao himself, who kept changing his mind about what kind of “revolution” he wanted, with catastrophic consequences every time he opened his mouth.
The plainest solution, which most observers in the West have adopted by default, is to focus, and quite properly, on the Revolution’s horrific results: the tens or perhaps even hundreds of thousands killed, maimed, or driven to suicide; the innumerable cultural relics destroyed; the denial of education and a meaningful childhood to an entire generation of citizens; the outbreaks of mass savagery, including the well-documented cannibalizing of “class enemies” in one province, comparable to the worst state-sponsored crimes of the Khmer Rouge or the Rwandan Hutus. This impression is largely amplified by the novels and the films about the period that have found a wide audience in the West, from Farewell My Concubine to Xiu Xiu, The Sent-Down Girl to Ma Jian’s recent Beijing Coma.
Yet to speak of the Cultural Revolution in terms of collective trauma or mass genocide—to adopt the same language we use about the Holocaust, for example—is to miss a fundamental part of the story: the Cultural Revolution, though the product of a totalitarian state, was a profoundly decentralized and chaotic movement, in which an enormous amount of power was shifted from the state to local Party leaders or amorphous groups, such as the Red Guards. For many Chinese, and particularly for teenagers and young adults, there was a feeling of exhilarating freedom and autonomy that many of them (now in their fifties and sixties) still remember vividly, as well as a keen sense of generational solidarity—the kind of mutual interdependence experienced when the rest of the world has gone dark.
Zhong Acheng, who writes under the pen name Ah Cheng, was nineteen, the son of senior Party bureaucrats in Beijing, when, as an “educated youth,” he was sent down to the countryside, first to Shanxi province, and then to the far southern region of Yunnan province along the Burmese border. When he returned to Beijing in the late 1970s—having spent nearly a decade away—the first stirrings of democratic resistance were underway, and the first works of post-Cultural Revolution “scar literature” were being published, bringing the consequences of the movement to the attention of the wider public for the first time.
When Ah Cheng published these three novellas—“The King of Trees,” “The King of Chess,” “The King of Children”—in a quick burst of productivity in 1984 and 1985, the national mood was quite different: Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms were beginning to take root; and the “lost generation” was busily educating itself, either in newly expanded domestic universities or overseas; former “class enemies” had been rehabilitated, and museums, libraries, and temples reopened and restored. The opening paragraphs of “The King of Chess”—in which a young man leaves for the countryside alone, his parents dead, his home broken-up, even the furniture confiscated—spoke to the experiences of millions; but instead of entering a nightmarish world of deprivation and violence, the protagonist meets an eccentric, phenomenally gifted young chess player (the “Chess Fool”) who speaks of the game in unmistakably Daoist terms, and who disdains tournaments and competitions as unworthy of his spirit. Finally convinced to enter a provincial tournament at the last minute, he defeats ten local champions in ten games at once.
The most important scene in “King of Chess,” however, is not this somewhat melodramatic moment of victory, but when the narrator, earlier in the story, is reunited with the Chess Fool after being separated into different work units. Given no time to prepare, he enlists his friends in organizing a feast of wild-caught snakes, eggplants, and rice, prepared with precious tiny rations of soy paste and oil, and using disinfectant crystals in place of vinegar. When one of the friends, the scion of a wealthy family, compares the meal ironically to crabs and birds-nest soup (which is a delicacy), the Chess Fool is incredulous: “One person spends all day fussing with birds nests? Son of a bitch! You could buy some fish and shrimp and stew them up together—wouldn’t that be just as good?”
It is a reply that might have almost made Chairman Mao—who was famously addicted to home cooking from his native Hunan—smile. This is not to say that Ah Cheng is an apologist for the Cultural Revolution. Not at all. In “The King of Trees,” the “urban youth” senselessly destroy an ancient forest as a way of proving their ideological purity, and in “The King of Children” one ill-prepared teacher gradually realizes how the Party’s propaganda machine is depriving his students of a basic education. But in each case the political circumstances are contrasted with a local atmosphere of camaraderie, sympathy, and good humor—a vivid portrait of how this young generation, separated from its roots and upbringing, waited out the political storm by devising creative, and occasionally amoral, tools for survival.
Perhaps the most subversive element of these novellas—which earned Ah Cheng some mild criticism from the Party when they were published—is their emphasis on individual initiative as a counterweight to the overwhelming force of the mass movement. This is particularly true in “The King of Trees,” when one peasant farmer, Knotty, stands up in silent protest against the callow students’ determination to cut down an enormous ancient tree. His protest fails, with tragic consequences, and the novella turns into a potent environmental fable—a premonition of exactly what happened to China as economic development proceeded over the next four decades.
Ah Cheng himself apparently spent much of his time as a “sent-down” youth telling stories to local villagers or fellow students for money; among other things, he created an oral adaptation of Anna Karenina, which lasted for several months. The novellas in The King of Trees are best understood, too, as crowd-pleasers, aimed at his contemporaries, a kind of mythology of emotional survival. To an outsider they may feel a little sentimental and forced, but they represent an important step in how China recovered—and in some ways is still recovering—from the catastrophe of Mao’s final years.
Jess Row’s new collection of stories, Nobody Ever Gets Lost, will be published in February.